Award-winning actress Alfre Woodard knows a lot about her mother’s family, but her father’s Woodard line is a mystery. Her grandfather, Alex Woodard, died when her father was three, and the family history died with him. All she’s heard is that his family came to Oklahoma from Texas, but she’s curious about their earlier origins.
To start her journey, Alfre digs into census records, locating her infant grandfather with his parents (Alfre’s great-grandparents) Alex Woodard, 39, born in Georgia, and Lizzie, his wife. Alfre calculates that her great-grandfather Alex was born about 1841 in Georgia, and suspects he may have been enslaved there – and that “Woodard” was his slave name. Alfre heads off to Georgia see if she can trace her great-grandfather Alex Woodard’s trail.
In Georgia, Alfre pours over white Woodard estate records to see if she can locate her ancestor. Alfre finds her great-grandfather Alex listed as “Alec,” at about age 10, and appraised at $400. The records reveal that Alec’s owner, John Woodard, has died and all of his property – including his eleven slaves – is being inventoried to divide among his heirs.
The information does not specify Alec’s biological family, but he’s consistently listed with several children. Enslaved people were often sold away from their biological families, so they developed strong kinship networks with slaves who worked and lived with them.
Alfre sees that Alec, also written as Elec in some records, is given to a William Woodard, but members of Alec’s kinship network are sold to different owners. The expert promises to look into what happened to Alec once William Woodard claimed him.
The next morning, Alfre drives out to the Woodard land to see where her great-grandfather lived and labored as a slave. As she turns onto the road bordering the land, she notices the road sign: Woodard Road! Alfre pours a libation on the land her ancestor worked to pay her respects.
Alfre reconvenes with the expert, and discovers that Alec moved to Jackson Parish, Louisiana with his slave owner William Woodard by 1860.
Alfre follows her great-grandfather to Louisiana. The historian explains Alec would’ve been emancipated after the Civil War in 1865. Alfre’s journey through her ancestor’s life as a slave is over, so now she wants to know how he established himself as a free man. The expert explains that 1867 marked the first time black men could vote, but restrictive Southern laws required they pay a “poll tax” to do so. Poll tax rolls reveal that Alec is registered to vote and over the years he ascends from having no property to owning 240 acres of land in Jackson Parish! He’s firmly part of the middle class at a time when any amount of land was significant to a former slave living in Louisiana. Owning land was the ultimate goal for every freedman, but only about 25% of them achieved it. Alfre’s great-grandfather has accomplished an extraordinary feat.
But something is amiss; Alfre then discovers that just a year later, Alec is now paying taxes on only 80 acres, and likely lost some of his land in an economic collapse.
Next, Alfre examines an 1898 land deed from Alec Woodard and his wife Elizabeth, to Aaron Stell. Alfre sees that after Alec purchased land in Texas, he sold his Louisiana land to this man Aaron Stell for just $35 – but why so cheap? Alec is selling the property with his wife Elizabeth (Alfre’s great-grandmother) and in fact, Aaron Stell was Elizabeth’s brother. Alec is doing well enough in Texas that he’s giving his brother-in-law the “family discount” on his Louisiana land.
Alfre drives out to the rural, thickly wooded plot formerly owned by her great-grandfather in Jackson Parish. Alfre walks the land and reflects on all she has learned about her impressive great-grandfather Alec Woodard and his resilience that has been passed down through generations.
On her great-grandfather’s former land, Alfre meets an 80-year-old African American woman who lives on that corner. Roye says that Stells have lived here as far as anyone can remember, and she’s a Stell by marriage. So Alfre and Roye are kin! Roye tells Alfre about growing up on the old farm – picking cotton in the early morning darkness, climbing the pecan trees, and playing among the cows and horses. She says that generations of her family have been proud to own that land, and she hopes it always stays in the family.
For an interesting episode about the Civil War era in the deep south and to share Alfre’s and her ancestor’s journey, watch the episode on Sunday, August 9th on TLC.